Standing on the shoulders of giants: Ulster’s Greatest Team of the Professional Era

By November 29, 2018 Rugby Thoughts

Like a Peter Kay stand-up routine, it is time to indulge in a healthy dose of nostalgia. After much deliberation and input from literally tens of people, the greatest Ulster team of the professional era has finally been assembled. Thank you to those who contributed to the discussion/heated debate over which players were worthy of inclusion in this prestigious team. For those selected, it is an honour which will surely be a highlight of their career/life.

Walking down memory lane and fondly reminiscing about players past and present served as a useful and encouraging reminder of the legends this province has produced over the years. Indeed, in this frustrating ‘period of transition’, it is easy to forget about Ulster’s success in the relatively recent past and the great players who have contributed to the cause.

Of course, in considering suitable candidates for Ulster’s greatest team, the obvious starting point was the famous Ulster squad of 1999, immortalised when they became the first Irish province to win the European Cup. A barren spell followed over the next 10 years, punctuated only by success in 2006’s Celtic Cup and the first win on English soil against Bath (if you listen closely you can hear the sound of the bottom of the barrel being scraped). Despite not being a period of great success for Ulster, some great individual talent emerged in this time – most notably legends such as Andrew Trimble, Tommy Bowe and Stephen Ferris.

Then, in 2010 Shane Logan arrived and infamously announced his plans for world domination – “first we take Ireland, then Europe, then the world!” *evil laughter*. This lofty ambition appeared to be unrealistic, bordering on delusional. However, in 2011/12 an Ulster team consisting of a perfect blend of local talent and high-quality imports beat Edinburgh to reach the Heineken Cup final for the first time in thirteen years.

The following season Ulster started with 13 consecutive wins in all competitions, making it the longest unbeaten run in their history. Much of this squad, many of whom feature in the legendary line-up below, departed for one reason or another shortly after this brief flirtation with the upper echelons of European rugby.

Unfortunately for fans, the years that followed have been less like a rollercoaster (which would imply significant ‘ups’) and more akin to the sensation of rolling slowly downhill in a wheelbarrow like a scene from ‘Last of the Summer Wine’. Frustratingly, during this barren spell Ulster has been home to some world class talent who were the unfortunate victims of poor timing.

Over the past few seasons, shenanigans behind the scenes and a revolving door of coaches has stymied the progress of the squad and several potential stars have been allowed to slip through the net.

Ulster hit the reset button at the end of last season. A new generation of future stars is now beginning to emerge and, in order to once again reach the dizzying heights of the upper tiers of European competition, the current squad must learn from the Ulster legends who have gone before them. To paraphrase Sir Isaac Newton, they must ‘stand on the shoulders of giants’.

After much deliberation, without further ado, here is the greatest Ulster team of the professional era:

1. Tom Court:

Yes that’s right – Andy Warwick has been cruelly overlooked. This is perhaps the most contentious position in the team. The intense, age-old debate over whether Fitzpatrick, Kempson or Court is the greatest Ulster loose-head of the professional era has ruined friendships and is frequently cited as grounds for divorce (probably). Tom Court was massively underrated during his time at Ulster. He was the first choice loose-head throughout much of Ulster’s most successful period of recent years has never really been replaced.

Picking Tom Court is a bit like marrying an accountant – solid, dependable and will always put food on the table (metaphorically speaking). For a prop, that is definitely not a criticism – the current Ulster squad would kill for someone as reliable as Court to bolster the scrum. Court gained a number of caps for his adopted country and even became a British Lion (albeit because he happened to be on holiday nearby). An Ulster legend and deservedly Ulster’s number one.

2. Rory Best:

Captain, leader, legend. For years the cornerstone of the team, the face of Ulster Rugby and the first name on the team-sheet. Originally known only as ‘Simon’s wee brother’, the teak-tough farmer quickly made a name for himself, captaining Ulster, Ireland and the midweek British Lions team. His admirable journey from solid Ulster player to Ireland legend came through sheer hard-work, grit and determination. Best has also earned respect in the rugby community for his physical and mental toughness (famously hitting a ruck moments after breaking his arm while playing for Ireland against the All-Blacks).

An inspiring leader on and off the pitch, Best is capable of delivering impassioned team-talks as well as organising legendary ‘team bonding sessions’.  He is undoubtedly one of the best hookers of his generation and no-one comes close to ousting him from this line-up. In brief summary, Allen Clarke – good, Rob Herring – better, Rory – Best.

3. John Afoa:

Upon his arrival at Ulster, it was clear that the former All-Black was a player of immense capabilities, most notably his scrummaging. Afoa is a powerful and explosive prop with an impressive running game and is noted for having ‘good hands for a big lad’. He may have a 3 on his back but he is a 10 in his head. His departure was arguably Ulster’s most important loss in recent years.

He has never been replaced (although it is hoped Marty Moore will use his ample frame to finally fill the gap left at tight-head). Simon Best and BJ Botha also deserve an honourable mention but Afoa’s berth at tight-head in this legendary team is nailed on due to his ability in the loose as well as his obvious set-piece strength.

4. Johann Muller:

During his 4 years at the club, Muller, a 2007 World Cup-winner, was a totemic figure for Ulster. The squad’s ascent to the upper levels of European competition during his time in masterful control of the line-out and pack was by no means coincidental. A lineout specialist and respected captain, the South African added a steely edge and a winning mentality to Ulster’s pack.

A great team requires an inspiring leader and Muller brought organisation skills and leadership ability in abundance. Like the yogurt of the same name, without him, this team would be Muller-light.

5. Iain Henderson:

He may look like a massive child, but, despite his boyish appearance, Henderson is a genetic freak, full of explosive, raw power. Henderson is first-choice in Ulster and Ireland’s engine room and showed his quality in full force as a Lion.

His physicality, particularly in the breakdown areas, his lineout work and his explosive carrying make him the prototype for a modern second row. He has all the attributes to be an Ulster and Ireland legend and is perhaps the natural successor to Rory Best as Ulster skipper.

6. Neil Best:

The Ulster faithful fondly remember the fiery flanker’s shuddering smashes which can now only be enjoyed in YouTube compilations. His rampaging style of play and passion for the physical side of the game were a joy to behold. Aggressive and never one to back down from a fight, Best was involved in a fair few punch-ups during his career (occasionally with the opposition).

He built a reputation as a hard-hitting, no nonsense player who put his body on the line for his team. A worthy player to have in this strong back-row department for his ability to strike fear into the heart of the opposition, appetite for thunderous collisions and the abrasive edge he would bring to this pack.

7. Chris Henry:

Ulster have been blessed with such great opensides as Andy Ward and Neil McMillan however there has been none better than ‘Chad’. His recent retirement was reason to reflect on everything this Ulster legend achieved in an illustrious career. Ulster fans can be grateful Henry delayed his plans to become an air traffic controller and, instead of bringing people back down to earth safely, chose to spend the last 10 years scything down opponents with chop tackles. Not only did he achieve his dream of becoming a professional rugby player, he went on to captain Ulster and became an integral part one of the greatest Irish rugby teams ever assembled.

Despite lacking the freakish physical attributes of his Ulster back-row colleagues such as Nick Williams or Stephen Ferris, Henry’s work-rate, tackle count and aggression at the breakdown set him apart as a man willing to take on the less glamourous but vitally important work required of a back-row. The injury problems which shortened his career bears testament to his years spent hammering away at the breakdown coalface. A true legend.

8. Stephen Ferris:

Jim Neilly labelled him “the Leviathan”, the Irish lads call him “Freak of Nature” and his British and Irish Lions team-mates knew him as “the white Samoan”. The combination of his size, power and searing pace made him one of the most destructive ball carriers in world rugby and one of the top back row players in the world at his peak. He has been included at 8 in this team to facilitate an awesome, balanced back-row.

It’s hard to do justice in one short paragraph to the qualities he possessed, both as a person and a player, that earned Ferris his legendary status at Ulster. However, his legacy is perhaps best summed up by the immortal words of Ulster fans which echoed around Ravenhill during his last appearance for the province, “There’s only one ‘F’ in Ferris”.

9. Ruan Pienaar:

The South African star became a hero to the Ulster faithful following his arrival at the Kingspan Stadium back in 2010. He cemented his legendary status after rejecting a big-money move to France (he reportedly could have almost trebled his salary). He built a reputation as a nerveless kicker who thrived under pressure, appearing utterly calm in the most frantic situations on the pitch. Pienaar was able to control the game from scrum-half and could win games with a moment of brilliance.

He relished the support and affection that he felt while playing under the Friday night lights in Belfast. Much to the chagrin of Ulster fans, Pienaar was cruelly forced out of Ulster by the IRFU despite having expected to see out his career here. He will be welcomed back with open arms should he ever choose to return to his adopted home in some capacity. When he arrived he had the humble wish to have been “a foreigner who made a difference” – not only did he achieve this but he will go down as one of the all-time greats to have put on an Ulster jersey.

10. David Humphreys:

Humphs with go down in history as the talisman of Ulster’s 1999 European success and the captain who guided them throughout their European adventure. Having returned to Ulster with the advent of professionalism in the province at the beginning of the 1998–99 season, Humphrey’s positional kicking from hand, distribution and consistent goal kicking made him a formidable out-half for both Ulster and Ireland. His ability to hit a drop goal in pressure situations was a vital part of Ulster’s armoury in the late stages of close games.

For those fans who remember watching Humphreys in his pomp, he was a reassuringly sturdy and unflappable presence at 10. Humphreys impact on the club is unrivalled – he helped to define Ulster Rugby both as a player and, later, as Director of Rugby. As Rory Best said of him when he announced his departure from the province, “He’s not just been a part of Ulster rugby, he was Ulster rugby.”

11. Tommy Bowe:

RTE mouthpiece/rugby pundit George Hook has been wrong on many occasions. However, he has never been proven so spectacularly wrong as when he made the ludicrous claim that Tommy Bowe didn’t have the pace to be an international winger. Bowe went on to have a stellar career, becoming one of the best finishers Ulster and Ireland have ever seen, winning the grand slam with Ireland and going on two Lions tours. His passion, enthusiasm and carefree nature has enamoured him to every Ulster fan. His tall, athletic frame combined with his ability to attack the ball in the air (a remnant of his gaelic football playing days) made him an ideal target for cross-field kicks.

Bowe was such a massive threat due to his unrivalled ability to choose the perfect running line and burst onto the ball at pace. Bowe finished his career as the second leading all time Irish try scorer and (until recently) held the record for most tries scored in a single season at Ulster – not bad for someone who was ‘too slow’.

12. Paddy Wallace:

Wallace is no stranger to being included in great teams – he was part of Ireland under 19’s World Cup winning squad of 1998 (starring alongside BOD) and Ireland’s Grand Slam winning side of 2009. Wallace and his bleach blonde hair burst onto the scene in 2001, putting in a number of outstanding performances for Ulster at full-back, out-half and centre.

Ultimately, he thrived at inside centre where his creative flair, kicking ability and solid defensive work made him an integral member of the Ulster backline throughout much of the noughties. Paul Steinmetz and Kevin Maggs were both in contention but it is Wallace who gets the nod for his rugby intelligence, skill and creativity.

13. Darren Cave:

Along with Rory McIlroy, Dermot Murnaghan and Andrew from the Great British Bake-Off, Cave joins Sullivan Upper School’s ‘Mount Rushmore’ of GOAT alumni. The Holywood native is one of only 3 of the current squad to make it into this all-star line-up. Cave fought off competition from other strong contenders such as Jonny Bell and Jared Payne to partner Wallace in midfield. It was obvious Cave was destined for greatness from an early age. Having played for Ulster and Ireland schools, Cave appeared to plateau briefly at the outset of his professional career, playing club rugby at Belfast Harlequins as he vied for Ulster selection.

His success is testament to hard-work and perseverance as, after breaking into the starting team, Cave became a fixture for Ulster throughout much of their most successful period, forming an outstanding centre pairing with his long-time partner-in-crime, Luke Marshall. His deceptive turn of pace, defensive organisation and rugby brain make him a complete centre and definitely worthy of a place in this awesome team.

14. Andrew Trimble:

The most capped Ulster player of all time with 229 appearances, 77 tries and one of the club’s greatest ever servants. His recent retirement and newfound freedom from rugby has drawn comparisons to the Shawshank Redemption – after 13 years of loyal service he is now able to experience life on the ‘other side of the wall’ as a rugby pundit – another thing to add to the list of things he’s annoyingly good at.

Trimble’s pace, power and instinctive running angles have made him one of the most prolific finishers in Ulster Rugby history. His ‘hard-but-fair’ aggressive style makes him the perfect role-model for young rugby players. Trimby is a class act on and off the pitch and the obvious choice to pair with his former Ireland colleague, Tommy Bowe, on the opposite wing.

15. Jared Payne:

Once a defensive leader on the pitch, the New Zealand-born player is now Ulster’s defence coach. Payne had an awesome rugby brain and showed great awareness of space and an excellent range of passing, making him a nightmare to defend against. Payne made 78 appearances for Ulster and earned 20 caps for Ireland, forming a formidable partnership with Robbie Henshaw.

It was during last summer’s Lion’s tour that Payne picked up a knock to the head which would cruelly cut his career short due to ongoing headaches. Payne’s skill-set made him an invaluable asset to Ulster in both attack and defence and, although he is massively missed from the current squad, there is no better man to complete this legendary line-up.

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